10 gift-giving tips to reduce costs and stress this holiday season

Guest post by Mary B.

The holidays are upon us! And with that comes bloated shopping lists, emotional meltdowns at the mall, and painful credit card bills. The season can be costly, and stressful, but it doesn’t have to be…

1. Trim your list before you trim your tree

Seriously: cut people off your gift-giving list. This will save you cash, and help you keep your calm(er). I know it’s a wonderful thing to give gifts, especially if it’s one of your love-languages, but there are ways to show you care without presenting a brown paper package tied up with string. When my husband and I were first married we were broke as a joke, and didn’t have the cash to buy gifts for our aunts and uncles. It was an ideal time to transition to a nice card and holiday letter. While our finances have improved, we haven’t gone back to giving gifts to extended family members. To be honest, I don’t think any of them have missed out on our gifts, and may even have been relieved to not receive extra stuff every December. This can be a painful step for some, but you’ll save money if you don’t spend it in the first place.

2. Budget

Take a hard look at your new list and create a budget. You may want to focus on the total number of dollars you have to spend and work from there, or set maximum limits per gift. I like to use cash to pay for Christmas presents, because I can’t add on extra that way (unlike with a credit card).

3. Save up

We save our change throughout the year, and typically split it between our vacation fund and our Christmas fund. I also like to throw the odd bill in there, and or try to set aside twenty from every paycheque. It’s not always possible, but it’s a low-key way to build a little nest egg for Christmas shopping.

4. See if you can use loyalty points or plans when possible

My husband and I both have Visa Rewards Points, and we save our points until November, then order gift cards with the points. Sometimes the gift cards are gifts for specific people, while other times we get cards for book, toy, or home goods stores, which then pay for various presents. Other people I know do all their shopping in co-ops or other stores that offer member discounts. Many of these stores also offer additional discounts on special Midnight Madness evenings, so it’s worth checking out if you are a member of a co-op or loyalty program.

5. Shop local

Avoid the mall and head to a shopping district. Restricting yourself to a particular geographic area can help reduce stress, plus eliminates the possibility of Christmas Eve mall meltdowns. You’re also supporting local businesses this way. Many business improvement areas hold Midnight Madness events, so you may get a discount that way, plus the opportunity to enjoy some community festivities.

6. Buy second hand

I love the thrill of the thrift store hunt, so it’s an extra bonus when I can find something pre-loved. I find this strategy works well for children: most of my daughter’s gifts have come second hand and it’s never bothered her because NEW TOYS. Check out consignment stores, flea markets, kijiji. Second hand shopping has allowed us to afford high quality items without paying a full retail price. If think people might wrinkle their nose at this suggestion, keep in mind that second hand doesn’t necessarily mean “used,” especially if you go the consignment or kijiji route.

7. Change it up

Maybe it’s time to start giving experiential gifts. Maybe your adult family is in the mood to switch to group gifts, or drawing names. Maybe it’s time to discuss putting a maximum limit on spending, or to stop traditions that no longer make sense. If you’re planning on going this route, I would suggest bringing it up in September or October, as it gives people time to think about changes, and to adjust expectations as necessary.

8. Do a handmade Christmas

Do you have a skill, hobby, or talent that you could share with others? Put it to good use during the holidays. Pace yourself, and have realistic expectations regarding what you can create, but this is a truly heartfelt way to change your approach to gift giving.

9. Compare sales

I tend to do a lot of comparison shopping online before I buy, and find it really helpful to subscribe to e-flyers for different retailers. I know at some point during the holiday season certain brands and items are going to be offered at a discount, so I watch and wait for the price drop. The same goes for online retailers. Chances are you can score a deal on something, if you are willing to do your homework.

10. Repeat steps one and two as necessary

What are your stress-reducing gift-giving tips?

Comments on 10 gift-giving tips to reduce costs and stress this holiday season

  1. Something I read last year that hit me hard–“Buy dollar store wrapping paper. You’re literally just going to throw it away.” I took it a step further and used old newspaper. I used to spend $10-20 on wrapping paper, but looking at it through the lens of “you’re trying to cover up the gift, that’s it” helped me. Plus, newspaper means reusing!

    • Do newspapers still have comic sections? That was always my go-to wrapping paper when I was younger. I also tend to re-use coloured tissue paper and gift bags throughout the year. Small stuff like wrapping paper can end up having a large effect on a budget, so looking for less expensive alternatives is a good idea.

    • We use Kraft paper… $1 from Target (bought 5 rolls, have plenty left) and a bunch of colored twine. Pink or Blue for baby showers, red & white for Christmas… It’s great not to have a ton of different rolls floating around!

    • In my house we re-use paper from previous years until it gets too scruffy and then it gets recycled. If a present is small e.g. make-up then we’ll still do the tear it off and chuck it out.

    • I definitely re-use gift bags, and sometimes I wrap smaller oddly shaped items in aluminum foil. Much easier than paper, with bonus shininess! I’ve also noticed that you can get reusable shopping bags that are super cute for like $1-2 at places like Marshalls, and those make great gift bags that are actually useful on their own! It makes me wonder why there are paper gift bags the same size for like $5?

    • I never have to buy wrapping paper because I reuse it all, every year. We have paper from the 80s (no joke) that gets used. If something is torn to bits, it gets tossed– most wrapping paper is non-recyclable, to add insult to injury >:( –but for the most part, we can reuse it over and over. Sometimes we get lucky and the tag is to/from the same person the next year, or we cover the tag with a cute cutout from a smaller scrap of the same paper, etc. It drives me crazy when people rip the paper to shreds because it’s just going to wind up in the landfill! Reuse your paper and it will last for decades to come.

  2. I make a spreadsheet with everyone that we need to get gifts for. Then I can fill in what I get them and the cost. I do a lot of my shopping online, so paying cash isn’t always an option.

    I love handmade gifts as long as they don’t end up being as expensive as buying gifts. I used to make tins of cookies for everyone, but was spending like $200 on cookie ingredients. Now I’ve gotten into making ornaments. One year I did cinnamon ornaments shaped like stars, one year I did little felt penguins, and one year I made little snowmen out of wine corks. This year I making little kanzashi snowflakes. I like being able to give something to people without breaking the bank.

      • My husband too thinks I’m crazy but I’d be lost without my Christmas spreadsheets! I have each person I buy for, a list of present ideas, and then a cost column. What I especially love is bringing up the list from the year before because any presents that I couldn’t find or afford the year before get transferred to the new list so I’m never without at least one or two ideas!

  3. We’re using “Elfster” this year (and last) to do secret santa instead of buying a gift for each of our family members. That way we’re doing 1 awesome gift for 1 person instead of stretching our budget further.

    • This is the area where I struggle. I’ll buy my cousin a books, let’s say a copy of Charlotte’s Web. Then my brain will tell me “it’s not enough, better add The Trumpet of the Swan as well”. Then my budget falls out of whack because I felt the need to add to an already acceptable gift. I have to remind myself that small and simple is okay.

      • I know, it was like this for me, too. I just reached a point where i don’t care, and even when i do, i care more about a few more bucks towards my holidays or my house fund.

  4. Literally the only people I’m buying presents for this year are my mum (I still live at home) and my work secret Santa. That’s how it’s been for years, well minus the secret Santa, this year’s my first. There was one year we were both unemployed and short of money and the presents we exchanged all came from charity shops (UK thrift stores), it didn’t mean any less. It almost meant more because it was that bright point in a dark time.

    • My favourite Christmas present last year was a vintage Care Bears mug from the local Salvation Army store. My daughter’s gift (a much wanted doll scooter) was purchased from Kijiji. Some of the greatest treasures come second-hand. It’s probably one of my favourite ways to find gifts.

  5. A Theme can be useful for gift giving. I know someone mentioned making cookies but switching to ornaments, but in the context of trimming her budget by making that switch. It cut my budget WAY back switching to a theme for everyone in my large family, rather than a super individual gift for each person. So one year, I decorated mugs for everyone in the family, I wrote/drew something they often say in times of stress (ex : one sister’s said “breath deep, seek peace” while my dad’s said “well, there it is” ). It cost $40 for six people to get the supplies but since they were personalized they loved them and were all eager to see what everyone else got on THEIR mug, too.

  6. I’m very concerned about overspending this Christmas. I normally try to stick to spending one full paycheck and no more, but I always end up going over. It’s never been a big deal before but this year we bought a house and the increased expenses from that are making me hold onto my pennies a little tighter. I really wish we could stop exchanging with my husband’s adult siblings and nephews. For his side we spend about $20 per person for 10 people. If we only bought for his parents and nieces that would cut the list down to 4 people. Plus, to me it seems like gift giving just for the sake of gift giving. When we were moving I noticed so much stuff we’d gotten as gifts from them over the years that has never even been opened. It’s very wasteful all the way around but it’s a really hard subject to broach without sounding ungrateful …

    • I know it can be an incredibly difficult conversation to have, but it is possible to make the transition to other gift-giving traditions if you bring up the subject in the late summer or early fall. A group email is another way to test the waters about switching to a gift exchange, a lower spending limit, or dropping gifts altogether.

      • Yeah, I know it’s already way too late for this year so I’m just going to couch up my $100 share of their gifts and let it go. But next summer sometime I definitely want to try to test the waters. I’ll probably start with his elder sister because she seems to be the most understanding and rational. The younger ones still live at home so they don’t pay many bills aside from their cars and cell phones so money isn’t an issue to them. His older sister is also the one with the children so I can make a case for Christmas really being about the kids and how we’d love to continue buying for her little girls but it’s really difficult to buy for all the adults so maybe we could think about a new tradition.

  7. Another thing you can do, depending on your situation, is set a budget with family members. Money is pretty tight for us, just ended a year and a half one-income situation and are focusing on rebuilding savings. Luckily a lot of our siblings are in similar situations, or just had expensive weddings, or are trying to save up for a house, so we approached them and we set a low budget everyone was happy with.

  8. Since My side of the immediate family is very small (Mom and Dad, who live with us) we opted to do only stockings. The budget varies by year but it also always feels like a team effort. No one knows exactly who bought them what so its like a shower of love. It also adds the bonus of limited space, you have to be fairly restrictive and creative with your purchases.

  9. I adore doing handmade gifts but I think it should be said that going down this route, unless as gifts made by and from children, is often neither cheaper or stress free! If you’re starting from scratch without a craft stash, it can be very expensive to buy supplies, and even with a good stash you will always need and even want to spend on supplies to make the gift nicer. My time is also not as free as I would like!

    It takes a lot of planning ahead to make sure that everybody gets a gift they’ll actually like, and then you’ve got to make everything, so I actually find it less stressful to buy gifts despite the fact that I love to knit, sew and make jewellery.

    That said, I always find the easiest and cheapest homemade gift is doing jams and chutneys, and this is my go-to for those slightly more distant relatives that I feel obliged to get a gift for. Outside of this, in my experience handmade is not cheaper or easier!

    • I think homemade gifts takes a great amount of planning, and need to be considered in the greater context of skills, supplies, and stress. Picking up a new hobby and trying to make gifts for everyone? Probably not such a great idea (that was me the year I thought I would make everyone bead jewelry). Using existing supplies creating something that is easy to do, or that you do well? Proceed!

  10. I always forget about Step 10. If you overspend in spite of yourself, go back to 1 and 2. Recalculate, reevaluate, restrategize.
    Part of all of this, for me, is looking at Guilt. I tend to overspend all over the place because I overspent on one person, so I feel obligated to keep going. And while Miss Manners may disagree, if someone gets you a gift… you don’t necessarily have to get them a gift, and certainly not of the exact same value. A kind gesture or small token in return is often more than enough.

  11. Sort of in the same vein as thrift stores, but don’t forget your local used bookstore! Where we used to live, there was one that would accept donations and give you store credit for your old books. There were several years where I donated a BUNCH of stuff we never read/used, would get $$$ in store credit, and spend said store credit on lovely secondhand books for everyone. I got rid of stuff I didn’t need and everyone got a gift without my having to spend a cent.

    • This is how I work with a local consignment store. I send them the stuff that is wrong size/wrong season, they sell it, I get credit or cash for the stuff I do want. One year I managed to earn enough on my account to purchase a beautiful dollhouse for my daughter. Different stores will have difference policies regarding if they give store credit or cash/cheques, but it’s a wonderful way to move along unwanted items while getting what you do want without spending any money.

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